An Overview About Grammar

Grammar describes the way a language works. English grammar tells how English works in communicating ideas.

Three types of Meaning In Grammar

After serious grammar review, three kinds of meaning occur when words are used to express ideas: (1) the meaning of each word by itself; (2) the meaning of a word when it changes its form (like man, men; go, goes); (3) the meaning of words as they are arranged in a certain order. Grammar is based on observing these different kinds of meaning.

Word Meanings In Grammar

Words are symbols for ideas. Every word has some meaning; most words are symbols for a group of ideas. A dictionary contains a collection of the meanings expressed by words. For example, one high school dictionary gives 30 meanings for the word “head.” The primary meaning is “the top part of the human body where the eyes, ears, and mouth are.” The other meanings are formed from this meaning and are symbols of closely related ideas. But “head” is a symbol only for English speakers. For the same basic idea a German says der Kopf, a Frenchman says la tête; a Russian says golová. Each language has its symbol for this idea.

A single word used alone has tiny meaning. If you say to a friend, “Head,” he will probably be puzzled. If you say, “My head,” he will be less puzzled, and if you say, “My head aches,” you have expressed a thought in a sentence that has lots of meaning. When you arrange words into a sentence, you have created a pattern that is a fundamental element of grammar.

In a grammar review, sometimes a single word can mean much if it becomes the symbol for a complete thought. For example, if someone says to you, “When do you go camping?” you may answer, “Tomorrow.” This single word then becomes the signal for a whole sentence, which is, “Tomorrow I shall go camping.” If you listen carefully to a conversation, you will observe that ideas are often expressed by a single word or a few words that represent a complete sentence.

Each of these forms signals a certain meaning that we understand when we hear the words spoken or read them. English-speaking children learn most of these forms before they go to school. People whose native tongue is not English find these forms difficult to use correctly. An important part of grammar is knowing the meanings signaled by the changing forms of words like these.

Patterns of Words In Grammar:

The third type of meaning comes from the order in which words are used. Compare these word groups:

The dog frightened the cellar hid in the.

The frightened dog hid in the cellar.

We know the words in pattern 1, but they make no sense. The same words arranged into pattern 2 give a clear meaning. Why? Because there is an expected pattern, or structure, of English sentences that give meaning. In this structure, there are two essential parts: a doer, or actor, and an action. In pattern 2 “dog” is the actor; “hid” is the action. The other words tell us something about the dog and something about the action. In grammar the doer-actor is called the subject; the action is referred to as the verb. Patterns of words called sentences contain these essential parts. The order in which the words are arranged gives different meanings. In a serious grammar review, these two comparisons can be made:

The baby crawled over the kitchen floor.

The kitchen floor crawled over the baby.

The words are the same, but the order in which we place them makes an enormous difference to the child. Meaning is primarily governed by the order in which we arrange words.

English Sentence Patterns In Grammar

Although the different combinations of words that make sentences are almost beyond number, they are all based upon four patterns. Each model contains a subject and a verb. The first two patterns have verbs indicating an action.

Pattern I

The boy runs. The subject, “boy,” does an act. He runs. So “runs” is the verb. In grammar, this kind of verb is called intransitive because the action is confined to the subject.

Pattern II

The girl baked a cake. The subject, “girl,” does act, “baked,” that is performed upon an object, “cake.” In this kind of sentence, the verb is called transitive because the action carried out by the subject carries over to a person or thing acted upon, called the object. The largest number of English sentences follow this pattern.

The next two patterns use verbs that show a connection instead of an action.

Pattern III

Mary is kind. The verb “is” has the name “linking verb” because it connects the subject, “Mary,” with a describing word, “kind,” called an adjective.

Pattern IV

John is our captain. Here the linking verb “is” connects the subject, “John,” with another name, or noun, “captain.”

No matter how long and complicated it may be, every English sentence is based upon one of these patterns or a combination of two or more. Here are some longer sentences illustrating each pattern:

The weary hikers slept in a tumbledown cabin at the edge of the forest.

A famous traveler from South America delivered an interesting lecture to a rapt audience.

The passengers on the delayed train were hungry and thirsty.

The distinguished-looking man at the head of the procession was the newly elected chancellor of the university.

The words that form sentences are classified into parts of speech by what they do in the sentence. Modern grammarians speak of four main word classes: noun (including pronoun), verb, adjective, and adverb. The first two (noun and verb) create the frame of the sentence, and the second two (adjective and adverb) are the key modifiers. Other words are necessary for making longer sentences. They are called “function words” or “structure groups.” Among these are:

  • Determiners such as the, a, an, this, these, those, that.
  • Prepositions such as of, by, for, with, over, under, beyond.
  • Conjunctions such as and, but, either … or, for, yet, still.
  • Auxiliaries (used to help other verbs) such as is, was, were, has, had, shall, will, would, could.
  • Subordinators such as when, while, as, since, because, whereas.
  • Relatives such as whose, whom, that, which.
  • Intensifiers such as so (good), very (fine).
  • Sentence starters such as well, now, oh, why.

Educated people do not use expressions like those in the first column. They use those in the second column because other knowledgeable people expect them to do so. Good English is acceptable English; that is, it is acceptable to those who know the language customs of persons of education and culture. The choices made by educated people determine what standard English is.” Another way to say this is that “standard English” is the dialect of the expert speakers.

What is Said To Be Good English?

One modern grammarian has defined good English in this way: “Good English is that form of speech which is appropriate to the purpose of the speaker, right to the language as it is, and comfortable to speaker and listener. To become a user of good English, a person must wish to speak accurately and acceptably and must observe the choices made by cultivated speakers and writers.

We can improve our English by reading good books, listening attentively to the speeches and conversation of educated persons, and patterning our speech habits on these models. Many people start speaking the English language without any grammar review. A grammar review of a language is an absolute necessity before expecting to speak a language correctly.